Free Wheeling

Connecticut’s Motorcycle Riders
Love Living on the Edge of Adventure

By John Torsiello

It may sound cliché. Well, it does sound cliché, but for motorcyclists, it really is true that the allure of an unending road, freedom of movement, and the wind blowing through their hair (hear that, state legislators?) is what keeps them hopping onto their bikes whenever they can.
“There’s nothing like the freedom of being on a motorcycle and enjoying the sunshine, the fresh air and all the crazy times that go with riding your Harley with a group of great friends on a road trip,” says Winsted’s Joseph “Pepe” Lopez, owner of Litchfield County Landscaping.
Paul “Beemer” Stringer, a member of the Hartford chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club and retired Weaver High School principal, says a sense of freedom, an intimate relationship with a machine, the thrill of riding – and a close-knit relationship with those who share similar feelings – are his biggest motivations for riding hard on two wheels.
Lovey Ali of Hartford, a U.S. Army officer nurse veteran who works for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services as a registered nurse, couldn’t agree more. “It’s relaxing,” she says. “I also feel like a ‘bad ass’ female, in control of all that power. I like to be in control, so being a passenger isn’t for me.”

 

Ali says she is proud being the only female rider in her chapter. “I think they should give me an honorary mention because of that,” she laughs. “Otherwise, I’m treated just like my brothers. Whenever a female sees me on 2s, they always give me a thumbs up. If they express the desire to ride, I encourage them and offer my assistance if needed.”
According to the website “Statista,” there were more than 90,000 registered motorcycles in Connecticut in 2017, and more women are gripping the throttle these days. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, women riders accounted for 19 percent of the total motorcycle riding population in the United States in 2018, with the median age of female riders being 38 – 10 years younger than their male counterparts. Rising numbers of riders are employed rather than retired (71 percent), married (68 percent), college graduates (24 percent), and had a median household income of $62,500 in 2018.
For some of the thousands of Connecticut riders, the road winds a long way from home. And that’s just how they like it.
It wasn’t until Lopez got into his late 30s that he was able to afford a Harley. “It was the best experience of my life. I have been riding Harleys ever since. I have put on probably over 400,000 miles on the different Harley-Davidsons. I’ve have ridden all over the great United States and Canada, enjoying the beautiful scenery and national parks that they have to offer.”

Stringer explains that his club rode to Florida this year, and in the past to Arizona, Michigan, New Mexico, and Texas.
The Hartford chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club has 30 members. “We are from a hodgepodge of professions, including former military, state policemen, city and town police officers, teachers, school administrators, nurses, etc.,” says Stringer. “We are black, white, male and female. Our youngest member is 30ish and we have members in their 70s and 80s. We joined the club because of our love of riding as well as paying tribute to the original Buffalo [African-American] soldiers of the post-Civil War era. The commitment to community involvement is also a pertinent reason as to why we joined.”
Riding to the huge Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota is sort of like a visit to Mecca for motorcyclists. It draws thousands each year and has been held for 79 years. The appropriately named Ryder Fitzgerald, a member of the board of directors of the Connecticut Motorcycle Riders Association (CMRA), made the trip out to The Badlands for the event. He also has ridden on his steel and chrome horse to North Carolina and places in between.
The CMRA was born out of the controversial state “helmet law” in the 1970s that was going to require motorcyclists to wear helmets. The bikers protested and won their fight. The issue has come up since, including this year, and motorcyclists showed up in Hartford to voice their belief that helmets should be an individual option.

“We believe it should be a choice,” says Fitzgerald. “We also keep an eye on things like motorcycles-only checkpoints and raising awareness of the rights of motorcyclists on the roadways. Of course, we also educate our members (about 1,000) and other motorcyclists about the need to not drive too fast or imbibe before riding. We have an obligation to be responsible on the highways and roads.”
“There was a time,” he says, “that I didn’t drive another vehicle for two years, and that included during the winter. I can put 10,000 miles on my bike [each year], and the majority of those miles are day-to-day riding.” Fitzgerald has lived in New Milford, Stamford and New Fairfield, and recently moved over the New York border to Dover Plains.
Tim Burke of chapter 135 of the Freedom Cruisers Riding Club, headquartered in Essex, has been riding a motorcycle since he was 19. That’s 37 years ago. Quite the antithesis of the image of the lone wolf biker flaunting social contact, he says pack riding is one of the joys of motorcycling for many.
“Usually we will get between five and six people but sometimes it might be 10 people in all, including those who are passengers. Typically, we will do the long rides (up to 11 hours) on Sundays when most people are available. Someone might say, ‘Let’s ride out to Kent Falls State Park’ and we will do that and then stop in Goshen for a meal.”

Riding as a pack, explains Burke, is not only enjoyable but also helps enhance the safety factor for bikers. “It’s much easier for motorists to notice four or five bikes together than one. We are always concerned about the safety of riders.” A key is keeping proper spacing between the bikes and usually, the most experienced rider will lead the group, with less experienced riders toward the back.
Joe and Tracy Daigle of Torrington both ride beloved Indian motorcycles, she a Springfield and he a Vintage. They ride as often as they can. Joe, who has been riding motorcycles most of his life, says he and his wife “started riding mopeds and scooters together, mainly to get my wife ready for the bigger bike. We ride as a couple and sometimes with friends we feel are up to our ride experience.” Formerly president of the Indian Motorcycles Riders Group (IMRG) in Brookfield, he and Tracy used to lead 29 IMRG members to various destinations, but Joe retired from that position in June after getting the club up and running.
He tells a story about when he was just a tyke and was sitting under a maple tree, watching his father and others work. “One day, two red Indian motorcycles rolled up. I could not believe my eyes, and the sound, wow! After they left, I ran to my dad and asked what those bikes were, and his reply was, ‘Those were Indians, son.’ I said I wanted one when I got older.” His dad told him that they didn’t make the bikes anymore; production ended in the late 1950s. Joe was “heartbroken” – until one day when he and Tracy were riding, and she said she wanted to check out Indian bikes for something to do. “She knew I was following them for years to see if they would come back to life. I wound up walking out of a shop with my Vintage that day. I thanked dad in heaven.”
Tracy says she rides for her mother. “She was a single mother raising myself and my older brother, and worked three jobs to keep things afloat. My brother allowed me to join in with his friends riding mini-bikes, dirt bikes and choppers, which is where my love for motorcycles started. I wanted to ride free to represent and live for my mom, who worked her life away.” As for riding with her husband, she says, “Motorcycle riding together has helped our relationship grow with trust and time spent together.”

The Fire and Iron Motorcycle Club Station 142, which meets in Shelton, was founded in 2014 and is an offshoot of a club started in 1999 by central Florida firefighters who wanted to create a club offering more riding and fewer rules. The club has grown to become an international club made up of firefighters and others in the fire service and EMS, several thousand strong.
Member Harry Soucy says, “People join to foster the brotherhood of fire service and to give back to others. Each station has its own charitable causes. We ride together for thousands of miles yearly. On odd years, we have regional rallies (seven regions) where hundreds ride together, and the national rally, where thousands ride. Members ride from all over the country, and our international stations attend. I started riding over 50 years ago, when my cousin gave me a bike.”
For the CMRA bikers, Santa Claus comes early, in early October. That’s when the club holds its annual Toys for Kids event. Bikers ride to Hubbard Park in Meriden and bring a toy (some make cash donations) for needy children to pick up. The riders then head to the VFW in Prospect, with as many as 225 in a line led by the Connecticut State Police, with help along with way from local gendarmes. Jim Whitney and Mike Joyce serve as co-chairs of the event. The CMA also holds other rides and events to raise funds for its operations, which include lobbying for, and against, laws that affect motorcyclists in the state.
“I believe the charity and fund-raising rides have changed the image of bikers to some extent,” says Whitney. “But we still get looks, mostly from older people,” he adds with a chuckle. “The millennials and other younger people don’t give a darn when we pass by.”

The CMRA’s “Toy Run,” which will be held Oct. 6, will also feature live music and food and refreshments. Some individuals spend $50 or more on an unwrapped new toy and others will send $10. “It doesn’t matter. We hold it rain or shine and we pray for sun because it makes the ride that much more enjoyable.”
The Hartford chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club participates in a variety of charity rides, such as the “Children’s Miracle Ride” in Southampton, Massachusetts, the Special Olympics “Dream Ride” in Farmington, and the “Unity Ride for Sickle Cell” in Farmington. Says Stringer, “We give back to the communities through active participation and financial support. This is what we do, and we’re committed to it.”
Making memories. That’s what Pepe Lopez considers riding on a motorcycle. “It’s sharing great ride experiences and bonding and trusting the ones you ride with.”
Lovey Ali puts it succinctly, calling a motorcycle “wind therapy.” She adds, “Join me sometime.”
Many Connecticut residents are doing just that.


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